Author: Frank Tayell
OK, so I know I haven’t exactly been prolifically active with this blog, but this book has done so much for my faith in the horror genre in general, and the zombie sub-genre specifically, that I felt that I had to hop on and say something about it. If you’ve ever taken a quick stroll through Amazon’s Kindle page you will no doubt know that there’s no shortage of authors trying their hand at writing a zombie novel. Everything’s ‘zombie’ this and ‘outbreak’ that, but, until recently, every book I had read in this sub-genre amounted to little more that absolute shite. In my humble opinion the reason for this was that the books focus too much on the actual zombies. Anyone who has seen a zombie movie (or at least an episode of The Walking Dead) can testify that zombies are horrible because of the way they look, and it’s very difficult to transfer that visible on-screen horror to printed text. Praise be to Frank Tayell for doing something different and, in the process, writing a zombie novel that actually works and is a pleasure to read.
An outbreak has occurred in New York. An outbreak of what no one’s entirely sure, but whatever it is it’s making people rather corpsey and nibblish for human snacks. That doesn’t really do the description of the outbreak in this book any justice, but it is fairly standard zombie outbreak material that’s been written better than most that I’ve experienced.
The story itself centres around Bill Wright, a Londoner who broke his leg on the day of the outbreak and is subsequently home-bound. As the man partially behind a childhood friend turned minor politician, Bill was instrumental in laying the foundations for the Evacuation – the mass movement of every British citizen living inland to the coastal regions. From there small agricultural enclaves would be built to make the British Isles self-sustaining before eventually beginning a push back inland to reclaim territory ceded to the undead. Yet the British public know nothing of the push to reclaim land. Every night all the news channels keep stating is that there has been no outbreak of the virus in Britain or Ireland owing to the military shooting down every plane and the navy sinking every ship that dares to approach the islands.
This obviously isn’t true because Bill can see the undead outside his window. Not many at first, but the numbers ebb and flow as the days go by. His friend had sent someone to rescue Bill from his house when he was unable to join the evacuation due to his leg, but with the escort lying dead in the road with a bite mark to his neck Bill has to make another plan.
The book follows Bill as he tries to make his way through London with a bad leg, very limited supplies and hordes of the undead at every turn and, along the way, finding out why the evacuation plans and contingencies failed.
The Writing Style
Surviving the Evacuation: London is told entirely from Bill’s perspective through entries in the man’s journal. This is actually an incredibly effective means of conveying the story because it means that you are 99% sure (barring some deus ex machina intervention) that Bill is going to live so long as there are more pages in the book. Why this works is because, rather than spending every moment wondering whether Bill’s gonna live or not (I can’t be the only one that does this in zombie movies/novels) you can actually focus on what is being said and picture what’s going on around the main character.
This style of writing also allows for the plot to be greatly scaled back. Rather than most zombie novels I’ve read, where the mission has been the glorious salvation of mankind and the reclaiming of Mother Earth as our own, the novel takes you through the day-to-day struggles for survival from just after the initial outbreak to a far more capable and competent Bill later on.
One thing I must also give Tayell credit for is making the novel somewhat self-aware of its own genre. I have seen countless zombie movies and read a fair number of zombie novels ranging from spectacular to downright abysmal. Yet no character in any movie or book I’ve experienced has actually been aware of other such movies or books. This is usually why the audience always knows about the ‘shoot for the head’ rule but for the characters this becomes a steep learning curve that involves a few people getting eaten until the rest of them get it right. Bill knows about this sub-genre (going so far as to read some novels during his isolation to try and glean survival tips from them), which is refreshing. It is also why I was prepared to overlook what is normally regarded as a cardinal sin in the genre – referring to the zombies as zombies.
The only minor niggle with the book is that it could have done with another round of proof reading to tidy up the grammar and a few spelling mistakes (I’m a Grammar Nazi and things like this matter to me), but none of it is so bad that it makes any of the text unreadable or the meaning obscure.
The great thing about this book is that it highlights, in the unlikely event that the zombie apocalypse does happen and assuming you make it beyond the initial outbreak, that surviving isn’t really as easy as the movies would have us believe.
Consider most zombie movies. To start off with someone ALWAYS has a large arsenal of guns, both legal and illegal, so once they have learned the shoot-for-the-head rule the chances of them being taken down is drastically decreased. A group will also have at least one person with some knowledge of any conceivable mode of transportation, so moving around by car, boat, or plane is possible provided they can find such a mode of transport. After the initial supplies have run out they will also happen upon either some lovely pasture where they will continue to live of the Earth’s bounty or come across the hoard of one of those extreme couponers who happens to have seven years-worth of dried food just waiting.
Bill has none of these things. As a paper-pusher for a minor politician in London there was little need for him to keep a small armory in his bedroom cupboard. With his broken leg he can barely make it down the stairs from his flat, let alone find a tank and drive it. And one thing that did make me think – he knows that Britain must have farmland, but he hasn’t a clue where it is or how to grow anything on it. He also isn’t sure about things like how long water can be kept standing in a bath tub before it becomes unsafe to drink. These are things that movies and novels in this genre don’t usually address, but when the focus shifts from Resident Evil-style mass-zombie slaying with your army of clones (and don’t get me wrong, that was awesome!) to trying to find a source of drinking water that will last beyond two days the situation suddenly seems that little bit more desperate and, oddly enough, relatable.
Equally, as the descendant of good Scottish stock, what the bloody hell are you meant to do when you can’t brew a single cup of tea or find a single sodding biscuit to go with it? How are we meant to continue as a civilised society when things like that are taken away from us? Surviving the Evacuation: London dares to ask these difficult questions…
In short, if you’re in the mood for a very decent zombie novel that explores the survival of the everyday man (or you’re one of the many authors who have so brutally let me down in the past and would like to see how to do things the right way) then I strongly suggest giving this book a go.
My Final Rating: 9/10
Buy Surviving the Evacuation: London at Amazon.com